Universities have dealt swiftly with change, disruption
Speed and flexibility were vital going into lockdown, but as university heads noted during an online annual meeting of university presidents of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), it will be even more complex coming out of lockdown and reopening campuses safely.
The pandemic started in East Asia in December 2019-January 2020, reaching the Americas in March. To date, 9.6 million confirmed cases and 489,000 deaths from coronavirus have occurred worldwide.
APRU Chair Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States, said despite universities in Asia, the Pacific, the Pacific coast of North America and Latin America being at different stages of the pandemic and experiencing it differently, there were common issues for university heads.
“Many people view the university as a bit ossified and like dinosaurs, bureaucratic and slow to move, yet many of us moved thousands of classes online in a very short amount of time,” he said, adding that this demonstrated that universities “have more flexibility than most people believed”.
“Collectively as institutions, we met the challenge pretty promptly and, overall, really successfully,” Block said at the meeting of presidents and vice-chancellors on 23 June. The response showed a remarkable resilience on the part of faculty and students, he said.
Going into lockdown
It was a particular challenge for Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who had to move everyone off campus and into lockdown within two days of her arrival at the job in March. This included switching to online classes and closing laboratories, which had an impact on research.
Speaking of her first 100 days as vice-chancellor, of which she spent 95 “in lockdown and off campus”, she said “the first challenge is university leadership in a crisis like this”.
Referring to comments that universities are monolithic and slow to change, she said “actually, in response to COVID-19, we have really proven that to be wrong”.
Mexico identified its first coronavirus cases at the end of February, rising rapidly by the end of March. “We decided to suspend activities on 12 March, just 12 days after the first case was identified. And we were the very first organisation in the entire country to take decisive and determined action like this and go into remote learning,” said David Garza Salazar, rector of Technológico de Monterrey, Mexico, with 26 campuses, 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty in the country.
“Then a domino effect started from government agencies, public organisations and private industries and other universities, following our decision,” he noted.
Some 50,000 weekly sessions of courses had to be moved quickly to remote learning. “We very early on identified that it wasn’t enough to move the courses to distance education; we also moved some of our extra-curricular activities,” Garza said.
“We needed to take the university experience to the homes of the students, so we identified cultural activities, sports activities and group activities [to move online] and we also managed to do that.”
Garza emphasised that the university played an important role beyond education, and has been key in helping coordinate private, government and academic efforts during the pandemic, including initiatives for getting supplies to hospitals, training health personnel and planning for hospital capacity.
“We are often criticised that we move very slowly, but I think we moved very quickly and I am proud of our faculty and medical staff – their agility was also key,” said Garza, adding that rapid response and internal organisation had also been important.
Moving classes online
Moving classes online swiftly was an early and continued challenge for university leaders.
Subra Suresh, president of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, said: “When COVID-19 hit us a few weeks ago, we migrated 650 courses online in two days. We did not realise it then, but we were prepared for it.”
Abdul Rahim Hashim, vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya in Malaysia, said: “We’ve had online learning since 2016, but with this incident we actually had to do all in one go.
“The issues of training, making sure the infrastructure is there, how to make sure there is flexibility in how to conduct teaching, financial support, accessibility and guidelines for teaching and learning – all of this came round in a very, very short time. But we are quite pleased in terms of how it went.”
Ennio Vivaldi Véjar, rector of the University of Chile, said with the university being a leader in information technology in the country, “we have done amazingly well with remote teaching”.
In the space of two weeks, the university in Santiago had to move to online learning and redirect research efforts to convert laboratories into technical facilities to help mitigate coronavirus effects, including transforming the hospital associated with the university into a COVID-19 treatment centre, playing an important role in the pandemic response.
But it has not all been plain sailing, particularly with the speed of the changes. “All classes, exams, events like commencement ceremonies are conducted online and many students are dissatisfied about the quality of the education,” said Oh Se-Jung, president of Seoul National University in South Korea.
“Some students are demanding universities rearrange the amount of tuition [fees],” he said.
“To resolve students’ complaints about online classes, we should include elements that can only be done through online classes,” Oh said, such as providing opportunities to “communicate and collaborate with students and professors around the world”, and providing new experiences by using educational technology.
Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley in the United States, said the university was “investing a great deal of money into making our remote classes even better”.
“Our faculty went to remote classes with two days’ notice and some of them felt they were thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool with no swimming lessons,” Christ said.
Equity issues highlighted
Block from UCLA noted that the universities’ response had highlighted equity issues on all campuses. “We are really alert now to the need for some kind of equity in an environment where we have less control than in the classroom,” Block said.
The pandemic and associated lockdowns had conveyed the need to ensure equity to a much wider group within university administrations.
“When campuses are closed these differences become more serious, not only because of unequal access to resources, but also because of health problems and social and economic factors that can affect performance,” noted Rosa Devés Alessandri, vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Chile.
A number of university heads said they had created emergency funds to support students and their families with financial aid. “Some of the benefits that our employees have, we managed to transfer those benefits to some of our students and we also implemented some special loans for our staff who were having problems related to economics,” Monterrey’s Garza said.
The students come from all sorts of backgrounds, said University of Malaya’s Hashim, noting that the university provided data packages for marginal groups to help them get online, as well as some financial support.
With many students left unable to pay campus rents as they left for home, “we had to have a new model as far as our residential colleges are concerned where we allow our students to come and board but you only pay as you stay there. We call it ‘Pay as you stay’.”
With the pandemic, other forms of equity, “whether racial, digital or opportunities, are exacerbated – that’s been a big realisation for many universities and something we are facing as well,” said NTU’s Suresh.
“Even in a seemingly prosperous country like Singapore, we had more than 1,000 students whose parents had lost jobs; many work in the gig economy, and we had to very quickly find ways to support them.”
Student mental health
University leaders also highlighted mental health issues. “The mental health of our students has been an absolute disaster,” said Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington in Seattle, US.
“We’re seeing rates of depression and anxiety that we have not seen in this country among university – relatively privileged – populations, [more] than we’ve ever seen before and it is really important not to overlook that.”
UCLA’s Block concurred. “When students are on campus, we have capabilities for helping them with mental health issues; it’s much more difficult to reach them when they are at a distance and they are under much more stress now.”
Christ from Berkeley said: “We’re working really hard to build community among our students in the absence of community,” noting that this was one of the biggest challenges as conditions evolve, particularly with the pandemic far from over.
But Cauce also noted that “universities are the place where students come of age. Typical 18-to 24-year-olds are learning life skills, learning about alcohol and drugs, whether we like it or not, meeting spouses for the rest of their lives; and they are hungry to come back. They are willing to take risks to come back.”
Return to campus – the new normal
Planning the return to campus was at the forefront of university leaders’ minds, with several noting that things cannot be the same, but with so much uncertainty, it was difficult to plan for the ‘new normal’. They point to a considerable responsibility in this changing environment.
“Different sectors of society looked at us in terms of going into the lockdown and they are looking at us in terms of how to come back,” said Monterrey’s Garza, adding that “the complexity of coming back is even higher than the complexity of going into lockdown”.
“We’re all trying to figure out how to have our students re-enter campus in a new way, a safe way. But all of us have mastered the skills of online learning and it seems like what we have learned will change our universities forever,” UCLA’s Block said.
“We would not like to see us going back to normal again,” said Malaya’s Hashim, pointing to blended learning – combined online and face-to-face learning. Some 60% of classes were blended prior to the pandemic, “but now we reckon the students themselves have benefited from online learning.
“Attendance apparently is much better, and they get more personalised learning out of this. But we can’t totally go online. The issue is how do we plan the campus experience. That will be a challenge.
“Online learning is not a silver bullet; we still need to get our students on campus,” said Hashim, pointing to the importance of character development and social attributes that require social interaction on campuses, noting, however, that normal campus classes will not be able to resume in Malaysia before the end of this year.
Berkeley’s Christ said: “One of the most complex tasks is bringing students back in smaller cohorts so we minimise the effect of an outbreak of sudden contagion of a lot of students coming from a lot of different places in the US.”
She pointed to a major COVID-19 testing programme being put in place, with 7-10 days quarantine for the start of term.
But research must also resume.
Zhang Xiang, president of the University of Hong Kong, said experimental and collaborative research will be a challenge. “We need to think about how we continue our knowledge creation in research projects, specially physical research,” he said.
Auckland’s Freshwater pointed to steering the institution through “a substantial impact on our research activities – not having labs open, the impact on doctoral students, post-docs and also the delivery of our [research] grants in a timely way, which of course impacts the way in which they then impact on society”.
But the pandemic will pass, as Hong Hocheng, president of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, pointed out. Among the first group in encountering the pandemic in January, Taiwan has not registered any COVID-19 cases for 60 days.
“We just started today [23 June] to welcome back overseas students from some parts of the world. So we are 95%-98% back to normal now on campus,” Hong said.